Between 1976 and 1978, Club Brugge reached two European finals and a quarter-final. But for a couple of debatable refereeing calls, an injured centre-forward and a goalkeeping howler, their record might have been even better. Their manager at the time, Ernst Happel, would secure legendary status for achievements elsewhere but his highly impressive record with Club Brugge still resonates in Belgium. No Belgian side, after all, has ever matched the European Cup final.

The provincial club had won their first Belgian title in 53 years in 1972-73, the season before Happel arrived. They were struggling with debts of close to 80 million francs, though, and finished fifth and fourth in Belgium in Happel’s first two seasons. That was hardly a natural springboard for a remarkable European run. Yet slowly the cogs began to click, helping Happel, who had had a difficult time in the Spanish second division at Sevilla before coming to Bruges, to add to his earlier success at Feyenoord. 

Club Brugge’s achievements showed the full power of Happel’s coaching style and unique personality. It also illuminated his many paradoxes – Julien Cools, a midfield linchpin, told me that the players were so afraid of their manager’s grumpiness they hardly ever had a proper conversation with him, yet Happel’s skills in communicating a highly effective playing style and fostering togetherness were outstanding. 

Happel was also a man whose hard-nosed and sometimes brutal management style was coupled with a gentler side, an inadvertently comedic figure with his constant grousing who was nonetheless a tactical master, a true internationalist who struggled with languages and a man with a total disregard for authority who would later become a genuine national hero in Austria and have the chancellor of his country speak at his wake.  

Happel’s time at Club Brugge may never have come about at all had he not been a little too willing to share his thoughts on masturbation in 1973. The Dutch football federation (KNVB) had sent a journalist to Seville to sound out Happel for the job of coaching the Netherlands national team – one he would take on a part-time basis four years later. Happel grumbled his way through an interview that the journalist rather resourcefully also got published in Voetbal International. The Austrian said, on the topic of World Cups, that footballers couldn’t possibly go five weeks without “a bit of skirt”. He added that masturbation wasn’t a solution due to the threat of groin injuries, if you invited the players’ wives it could spoil the atmosphere and that he thought he knew how to solve this problem but didn’t want to say so in case it offended some people. While a generous historical perspective might call this all a case of ill-judged humour, it prompted numerous angry letters from readers and also managed to offend Wim Meuleman, the head of the KNVB, who ruled Happel out of the running. 

While Club Brugge may have been defending champions when Happel was appointed coach in January 1974 on a contract until the end of the season, the atmosphere at the club was far from cheerful. They had slid down to ninth place and were only slowly recovering from behind-the-scenes trouble caused largely by the tribulations of turning professional a few years earlier and throwing money at their pursuit of the Belgian title. 

Happel did have the good fortune to arrive at a time things were changing for the better off the pitch. Investors had planned to take over the club in 1973 and downgrade it into a feeder team for Union Saint-Gilloise but that plan collapsed in the absence of a guarantee that they could turn the team’s decrepit De Klokke ground into apartments. The mayor of Bruges, Michel Van Maele, then came up with a generous initiative that would take the club a long way towards financial security. He assembled investors to buy land for a new stadium. 

The professionalism of the players meanwhile would skyrocket – from the day Happel joined the club and said to his expectant new charges, with his typical brevity, and in German: “Hello! I’m Ernst Happel. It’s 10 to 10 and training begins at 10 o’clock.” He then left the dressing room.

The midfielder Henk Houwaart, who recommended Happel to the Club Brugge hierarchy having previously played for him at ADO Den Haag, told the Belgian journalist Wim Degrave in his book De Happel jaren that a few years before the Austrian arrived the players would keep crates of beer in the dressing room ready to knock back after training.

The striker Raoul Lambert told a Belgian TV documentary in 2009 that he felt so exhausted after Happel’s first training session he almost threw up. He said, “We only trained for an hour but it felt like we’d been training for a whole week.” The high-intensity approach would clearly take some getting used to, but Happel wasted little time in making his vision clear. A number of senior players who Cools said couldn’t cope with Happel’s hard-running style were offloaded at the end of the 73-74 season. The sales of Johny Thio, Erwin Vandendaele and Pierre Carteus raised eyebrows, as they were all Belgium internationals who had been instrumental in the title win the previous season. “They are all in their 30s,” said Happel, “and as a coach you just can’t change players in their 30s.” Energetic youngsters were brought in to replace them, like Roger Van Gool, aged 24, and the 21-year-old René Vandereycken. Daniël De Cubber was the same age when joining a year later.

Gruelling pre-seasons were a hallmark of Happel’s time at Club Brugge, and Cools recalled being totally exhausted when returning from the first summer training camp led by the Austrian. “We had more than one training session every day and did loads of running,” he said. “It was really tough for me personally as I was a bit of a lightweight. It created the basis, though, for the fitness that helped us qualify for Europe at the end of the season.”

Players recount a couple of extraordinary stories that highlight the toughness of Happel’s training camps. One is that he once made the players sprint with tree trunks on their backs, according to left-back Jos Volders in conversation with Degrave. Another concerns a seemingly endless morning jog around a hilly area close to Frankfurt where Club Brugge were holding a camp. Happel ordered the players to chase around the terrain at his whim all the while following them himself in the team bus – allowing them to pause their running only to hold a training session at the top of a hill.

Everyday training in Belgium was played out to the regular sound of Happel bellowing at his players from the sidelines. In addition to his snappy manner and intense stare, Happel was a physically intimidating sight. Georges Leekens told Degrave that the players would usually try to glance the other way when shouted at. Pictures of Happel in winter in his massive fur coat – that had reportedly once belonged to a Siberian wolf – suggest he would have had a silhouette like that of a yeti for any player catching a glimpse of him in the corner of their eye. The predominant sounds in training were usually Happel either whistling or shouting “Schneller! or “Scheiße!

Those two words go a long way to summarising Happel’s footballing philosophy of tidy and quick passing coupled with an early form of pressing. Cools explained that every training session under Happel featured matches in which the players were limited to two touches. “This really helped to speed up our play,” he said. Training always featured sprint exercises too, with Happel usually putting Cools up against Roger Van Gool and the coach getting enthralled in seeing who would win a race between two of the club’s fastest players. Cools added that Happel stopped his previous practice of running with the ball to turn him into a totally different player who perfectly suited his manager’s slick playing style.

Happel instructed his side to play the same way in Belgian competitions. While he would ask his players to switch between a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 at times, both systems were characterised by the Austrian’s desire to get on the front foot with attacking full-backs. His Club Brugge side were expected always to impress their intensity and fitness on their domestic opponents, most of whom were semi-professional or even amateur. “There was very little in the way of tactical preparation in Belgian matches,” Cools said. “It was the other team that had to adapt to us – that was Happel’s philosophy.”

Raf Willems wrote on the Flemish football website De Witte Duivel in 2016 that Happel played “full-gas football” that combined traditional Dutch positional dominance, Austrian regard for individual quality and German physical formidability.

The approach would take some time to pay off. Club Brugge only finished fourth in 74-75, Happel’s first full season in charge, some 12 points behind the champions RWD Molenbeek. They qualified for the Uefa Cup by the very finest of margins – a one-point lead over fifth-placed Beerschot combined with the fact that third-placed Anderlecht won the Belgian Cup.

Cools said the Happel era only really began with that first European qualification and it is a neat demarcation to the three golden years that followed, bringing three successive Belgian titles (including a league and cup double in 1977) and an extremely proud European record. 

The 75-76 season also saw the club move into its new Olympiastadion, in which it would go on a 55-match unbeaten home run in the Belgian league between 1976 and 1979. The pleasant new home and magical European nights there did seem to drive the team, but only after Happel had recognised the need for an improvement in performances. The Austrian Eddie Krieger was signed in the summer of 1975 and would prove to be a valuable figure as Club Brugge’s sweeper. The manager admitted to journalists at the time he had been wondering how to improve and had quickly identified a possible solution. Pre-season training had been too short the previous year at just seven weeks, he said, so he was going to extend it to 10 weeks.

Going into 75-76 Uefa Cup, Happel said his team were aiming to make the third round. This target looked hopelessly optimistic by early October. A 6-4 aggregate win against Lyon had brought them up against Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town in the second round, a team that along with Liverpool had narrowly lost out to Derby in the 74-75 English title race. Brugge lost the first leg 3-0 in East Anglia. But they fought back in the second and had levelled the aggregate score when Vandereycken headed in from a corner in the 88th minute. A capacity crowd stayed a full 30 minutes after the final whistle to celebrate. Remarkably, Happel’s side scored 11 goals in their home legs without conceding once as they made their way to the final, seeing off Roma, Milan and Hamburg too.

The final against Liverpool would give Club Brugge a chance to show their fearless style as upstarts on the biggest stage, which they duly seized. The Belgian side caught Liverpool off-guard by taking the game to them straight away – an extremely unexpected approach from visitors to Anfield. The dependable centre-forward Raoul Lambert raced onto an under-hit header from Phil Neal to chip Ray Clemence in just the fifth minute. Cools then latched onto a headed lay-off from Lambert after a sharp and fluent attacking move to make it 2-0 with a half-volley on the quarter hour.  

Cools said he still thinks about the moment he put the ball in the top corner every day. A photo of the strike hangs proudly in his house in the countryside close to Antwerp. Brugge ultimately would be early victims of a trademark Liverpool European comeback, though, losing the first leg 3-2. 

“The Belgians struck with classic simplicity and stunning finality to shock and shatter the Reds and the Kop in the opening stages,” Michael Charters wrote in the Liverpool Echo. He was impressed by Brugge’s spirit when 3-2 down: “In sudden sharp breakaways that showed the menace and the skills of this top-class Belgian side, Van Gool shot inches wide three times in the last ten minutes.” He concluded, “The score could have been anything, half a dozen to each side at least.”

Despite Lambert briefly restoring Club Brugge’s aggregate lead with a penalty in the second leg, a Kevin Keegan strike from an indirect free-kick gave Liverpool their second European trophy. The Belgians were left unhappy with the award of that free-kick for a high boot from Eddie Krieger jumping to clear, along with the penalty that Keegan converted to win the first leg after Fons Bastijns had tripped Steve Highway on the edge of the box.

The run to the final was nonetheless a clear vindication for Happel’s tactics as opponents were repeatedly caught off-guard by the underdogs who refused to sit back. Happel’s acid tongue also seemingly played its part in breaking down any fear factor that could have inhibited his team. At half-time in the second leg of the last eight away at Roma, with the tie delicately poised at 1-0 in Club Brugge’s favour, Happel asked his men, “Can’t you see that this Roma are shit?” Lambert duly scored in the second-half for another 1-0 win and Happel’s post-match verdict was, “This is even more evidence that Italians can’t attack.”  Before the final, the Austrian, who was no fan of the English long-ball style either, said, “Liverpool don’t play football, all they do is run, run and run.” 

That was Happel being Happel. He was a man, after all, who angrily shouted at the mayor of Bruges (who had played a huge part in saving the club years earlier) to leave the dressing room after the politician once dared to see what went on at half-time. Happel was also reported to have asked the Queen of Holland’s 11-year-old grandson (the present day King Willem-Alexander) when waiting for the monarch to appear at a royal reception in Amsterdam following the 1978 World Cup, “When do you think your granny is actually going to come? I was planning to go to the casino.”

Sealing the Belgian title a month before their 1976 Uefa Cup final against Liverpool placed Brugge in the European Cup for just the second time in their history in 76-77. They did well, beating Steaua Bucharest and a Real Madrid team featuring Paul Breitner 2-0 in the second round. They led their quarter-final against the eventual finalists Borussia Mönchengladbach from the 23rd minute of the first leg to the 85th minute of the second, when a rare mistake from the goalkeeper Birger Jensen, rushing unnecessarily off his line to try to meet a ball lofted to the edge of the area, gave the Germans a 2-3 aggregate win. Brugge’s 1-0 defeat that night was their only defeat in 14 home European ties between 1975 and 1978 – against sides of the quality of Ipswich, Liverpool, Roma, Milan, Juventus, both major Madrid clubs and Hamburg.

Jensen would redeem himself in the quarter-final of the following season’s European Cup by pulling off a brilliant penalty save as Brugge beat Atlético Madrid 2-0 in the first leg. A superb Paul Courant goal had opened the scoring that night, as he pounced on a poor first touch from an opponent in midfield to seize the ball, raced towards the defence, shimmied past a defender in full stride and beat the goalkeeper at his near post with an immense drive from just inside the area. The Belgians had already knocked out Finland’s KuPS and Panathinaikos by that stage, establishing another formidable home run in Europe with eight goals scored and none conceded in Bruges after the quarter-final stage. 

In the latter stages, Happel’s trust of his attacking instincts pushed his side through to a historic place in the 1978 European Cup final. Atlético had wiped out Brugge’s aggregate lead with two first-half goals in the second leg in Spain and the tie was running away from the Belgians. Instead of trying to cling on and somehow scrape through, though, Happel went for broke by bringing on an extra striker, Bernard Verheecke, and Brugge scored two away goals to progress 4-3 on aggregate.

The avid card player would take an even riskier approach into the semi-final second leg against Giovanni Trapattoni’s Juventus. After a 1-0 defeat in Turin, Happel picked four forwards for the return match in Bruges, and their 4-2-4 formation took them to a 2-0 win thanks to a Vandereycken strike with four minutes of extra-time remaining. It was the second time Happel had outwitted Trapattoni, eight years after his Feyenoord team had beaten AC Milan.

20,000 fans travelled across the North Sea for the final at Wembley. As a contest it failed to provide the fireworks of their meeting with Liverpool two years previously. The Belgians went into the match without Lambert and Courant because of injury, with the strain of Happel’s intense approach taking its toll at the end of the season. “We just couldn’t compete,” said Cools with only two real chances falling their way, and Kenny Dalglish’s 36th-minute goal saw Liverpool lift their second successive European Cup.

It didn’t take long for things to begin to unravel. The manager had until then skilfully maintained the balance between administering iron discipline and motivating his players. Cools said the players would have literally run through fire for Happel. A couple of players were left rushing for a taxi rank in Rome during their Uefa Cup run after Happel ordered the team bus to depart the morning after the match at one minute after the agreed departure time, despite two of the players’ seats remaining empty. 

While a stick was seemingly never far away, Happel was willing to provide carrots to his players. He reordered the pay structure at the club, providing generous bonuses for every win, albeit while reducing base salaries. He also dropped his intensity and distance to provide help when his players needed it in private matters. Henk Houwaart had always appreciated Happel’s guidance when he lost both of his parents as a youngster playing under the Austrian in the Hague, while Cools was given all the time he needed to grieve and then return to football after his five-year-old daughter was knocked down by a car and killed in early 1978.  

But given the Austrian’s combustible character it took only a few seemingly minor incidents to come together and see him walk out of the club in November 1978, as Degrave’s book documents. The atmosphere was already tense in pre-season as some players had been accused of not working hard enough at the training camp. Happel, who had spent that June guiding the Netherlands to the World Cup final, then cancelled a planned weekend off after agreeing for Brugge to step in at the last minute to make up the numbers at a pre-season tournament hosted by Feyenoord. After losing 4-1 to Everton and 6-0 to Benfica there, Happel temporarily demoted four first-team regulars to the reserves as punishment. 

A surprise defeat to Wisła Krakow in the first round of the 78-79 European Cup followed. Given how important European football was to Happel, it’s no great surprise his resignation soon followed. The 3-1 defeat in Poland in the second leg was not the immediate cause, though, despite Birger Jensen throwing his boots at Happel in anger after the final whistle. 

The deteriorating situation in the dressing room and on the pitch exacerbated frictions that had always existed behind the scenes. The sporting director Antoine Vanhove had long argued with Happel about transfers. The Austrian had never really accepted Roger Davies in his year at Club Brugge, for instance, as Vanhove had pushed for his signing from Derby despite Davies, as a typical English centre-forward, not fitting the Happel mould.             

The tension spilled over into something nastier in the incident that led Happel to walk out. Vanhove was overheard in a café in Bruges noisily scorning Happel, calling him a drinker, womaniser and a Nazi. The last of those accusations particularly offended Happel, who had had many Jewish friends as a child and who was, according to his Austrian biographer Klaus Dermutz, effectively kicked out of the youth ranks of Rapid Vienna in the 1930s for refusing to sing Nazi songs. He had been a member of the Hitler Youth during his days at Rapid, but that was essentially a prerequisite for young footballers at the club following Austria’s annexation. Happel notably arranged for the entire squad to visit Auschwitz before his final European tie in charge of Club Brugge, in Krakow. Happel had fled from US custody as a prisoner of war after serving on the eastern front for two years, jumping out of a train in Bavaria because, he said, he was bored and wanted to travel to Vienna to see his family. 

Cools said that while the breakdown with Vanhove prompted Happel’s departure there was a sense that Happel’s time at the club “had run out of juice. They had been extremely intensive years that we had definitely made the best out of.”

Happel’s next job was, incongruously, at KRC Harelbeke, who were bottom of the Belgian second division. He took it on supposedly as a favour for a friend who was the chief investor in the small-town club. After rescuing them from relegation, he joined Standard Liège in 1979 and in 1981 took the helm at Hamburg, where he would go one better than at Club Brugge and become the first manager to win the European Cup with two different teams. Cools would leave Brugge in 1979 but go on to captain the Belgium side that reached the final of the 1980 European Championship.  

While they may have come up a little too short to achieve lasting international fame, Club Brugge only fully established themselves as a leading Belgian club in Happel’s four years in charge and laid the foundations for continued participation in Europe. “Without Happel,” Jensen said in 2017, “Club Brugge wouldn’t be anything like it is today.”